The Victorian Law Reform Commission (VLRC) is an advisory body that investigates and recommends possible changes and improvements to the law in that State. Institutional law reform in Victoria has a somewhat checkered history. The first Law Reform Commission was formed by premier John Cain and the Labor government in 1984, however, it lasted only eight years. In 1992 the election of the Liberal Party and premier Jeff Kennett saw the immediate closure of the VLRC. The Kennett government’s attorney-general, Jan Wade, described the VLRC as “a failure” because, she alleged, it had failed to maintain independence from the previous Labor government. Wade criticised the VLRC’s annual budget ($1.5 million in 1992) and added that “governments are perfectly capable of thinking up changes to the law without a Law Reform Commission”.
The Kennett government was replaced by a new Labor government, led by premier Steve Bracks, in November 1999. Within six months Bracks and his attorney-general, Rob Hulls, had introduced new legislation into parliament to re-form the VLRC. This new body came into effect in April 2001, created and governed by the Law Reform Commission Act (2000) and overseen by a board of seven commissioners. The current VLRC chairperson is the Honourable Philip Cummins, a former Supreme Court justice. The VLRC operates in a similar fashion to the Australian Law Reform Commission, its Federal equivalent. The VLRC investigates areas of law at the request of the state attorney-general, who provides the VLRC with terms of reference – essentially a set of instructions – for its inquiry. VLRC staff then research the topic by:
- Gathering together relevant legislation and case law.
- Examining similar areas of law in other Australian jurisdictions, as well as abroad.
- Finding out how the law is interpreted and applied by law enforcement, prosecutors and the courts.
- Obtaining expert legal opinions about the law itself, from people like academics, theorists, politicians, judges and other legal professionals.
- Obtaining opinions from experts in fields related to or affected by the law. An investigation into euthanasia laws, for example, might seek and collect opinions from doctors, geriatric care specialists, palliative care specialists, ethicists and so on.
- Obtaining opinions from those who have been or are likely to be affected by the relevant law.
Once they have gathered all this information, VLRC staff prepare a consultation paper. Using plain language, this document explains the current law and how it is interpreted and applied. The consultation paper may also moot suggested reforms. The paper is released to the public, made available on the VLRC’s website and may be publicised in the media. Individual citizens have an opportunity to become involved by lodging written submissions in response to the consultation paper. The VLRC accepts and studies these submissions as part of the investigation. The VLRC then meets to develop its recommendations about reforms to the law. These recommendations are presented to the attorney-general and tabled in parliament. The parliament must then decide whether to implement these recommendations – either in whole or in part – by creating new bills or amending existing legislation.
Since its re-formation in 2001, the VLRC has investigated and made recommendations on many aspects of law reform, including adoption, assisted reproductive therapy, bail, the rules of evidence, family violence, intellectual disabilities, workplace privacy, surveillance in public places and guardianship of the intellectually impaired.